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The burst of comity that followed a deal on Senate rules changes at the beginning of this Congress is under stress, with Republicans growing frustrated at the lack of action on items such as spending cuts and trade agreements.
A group of conservative Senators led by David Vitter (R-La.) vowed last week to object to any bills not dealing with federal spending, forcing Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to file cloture simply to bring bills to the Senate floor.
Sen. Jim DeMint, a leader of the group, said he and his colleagues “don’t want to mess up the comity of the Senate” but that they are frustrated that Reid called up bills such as Federal Aviation Administration authorization, patent reform and small-business reauthorization rather than tackling spending more directly.
“Our concern is that the big problem facing us as a nation is the spending and the debt, and we’ve been back three months now and we’re not addressing it,” the South Carolina Republican said. “As a matter of fact, we seem to be looking for other things to do.”
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), another member of the group and the ranking member of the Budget Committee, said that if Democratic leaders don’t move soon, the pressure to block unrelated bills could build within the GOP. “Democratic leaders [have] got to realize that this issue’s got to be confronted sooner rather than later,” he said.
Reid has been critical of Republican efforts, saying he’s working on legislation aimed at stimulating job growth at a critical time.
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has yet to join the group in their approach, supporting Reid on invoking cloture to bring a small-business bill to the floor Monday. That appeared to satisfy Reid that McConnell is holding up his end of a gentlemen’s agreement the two struck to limit filibusters and allow amendments on the Senate floor at the start of the 112th Congress.
DeMint said McConnell was aware of the effort but that “there were different philosophies” within the Republican Conference about the hard-line approach.
“Our numbers are not to the point where we’re actually stopping things,” he said. “What is going on is a movement out across the country and in the Senate that this is the last short-term CR, and we don’t want to be in the position of stopping other business, but the fact is we have to deal with the real business first instead of using all these distractions and putting it off.”
McConnell has been upping the ante himself. On Monday, he led Republicans in threatening to block a new Commerce secretary and any other trade-related nominees until President Barack Obama sends Congress all three pending trade agreements: South Korea, Panama and Colombia. The Obama administration wants to act on South Korea first.
The move irritated Reid, who noted the rules agreement in a conference call Monday. “They weren’t going to do all this stuff,” Reid said.
But asked directly Tuesday whether he thought McConnell had broken the agreement, Reid said simply, “No.”
Majority Whip Dick Durbin nonetheless acknowledged that the events of recent days are pressuring the agreement between Reid and McConnell.
“These agreements are great in the opening days of the session, but the strain of business around here sometimes test them,” the Illinois Democrat said. “I hope that we pass the test.”
But Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander disputed the notion that the Reid-McConnell agreement was threatened, saying it has “worked very well.”
“Sen. McConnell said, ‘I’ll bring most bills to the floor if you will help Senators to be able to offer most amendments,’ and he’s done that so far,” the Tennessee lawmaker said. “He never promised he’d get 100 percent of his caucus to do it because it doesn’t take that many votes.”
Alexander said McConnell’s holds on trade-related nominees were “completely different” from the agreement on legislation.
“Occasionally you delay a nominee to get the attention of the administration, and that’s what he’s doing,” Alexander said. “But in terms of legislation coming to the floor and Senators being allowed to have votes — even if they’re not germane — that’s working pretty well. ... There are going to be times when Sen. Reid moves to fill the tree, and there are going to be times when Sen. McConnell votes against a motion to proceed. But that hasn’t happened yet.”
Alexander cited McConnell’s energy amendment to the small-business bill, which the Senate debated Tuesday, as an example of how the process is working. McConnell proposed barring the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gas emissions. McConnell’s strategy has been to force votes on Republican priorities such as repealing the health care law rather than blocking Democratic efforts to move bills.
And McConnell said his objection to trade-related nominees had nothing to do with his agreement with Reid, but rather were designed to “help the president do what he says he’s in favor of doing, which is send all three trade agreements up.”